The general and traditional definition of a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.
The Convention defines chemical weapons much more generally. The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.
The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorised as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well known agents are as follows: choking agents—chlorine and phosgene, blister agents (or vesicants)—mustard and lewisite, blood agents—hydrogen cyanide, nerve agents—sarin, soman, VX.
Of course some toxic chemicals, and/or their precursors, are utilised globally in industry. For example, toxic chemicals are employed as basic raw material, or as anti-neoplastic agents, which prevent the multiplication of cells, or as fumigants, herbicides or insecticides. Such chemicals are considered chemical weapons if they are produced and stockpiled in amounts that exceed requirements for those purposes that are not prohibited under the Convention.
The Convention is designed to ensure that toxic chemicals are only developed and produced for purposes unrelated to chemical weapons. Chemical technology must not be misused, and the OPCW has a mandate to monitor chemical industry to make certain that this is the case. To aid the OPCW in this task, the Convention divides toxic chemicals and precursors that could be used as chemical weapons or that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons into three Schedules. Schedule 1 chemicals have been used as chemical weapons in the past and/or have very few or no peaceful uses, and thus pose the most direct threat to the Convention. Schedule 2 chemicals are primarily precursors to Schedule 1 chemicals and most have some industrial uses. Schedule 3 chemicals are produced in large quantities commercially but in some cases were used as chemical warfare agents and can also serve as precursors to Schedule 1 or 2 chemicals. Production facilities of many organic chemicals termed discrete organic chemicals are also subject to declaration requirements and verification activities.
To help facilitate the destruction and verification process, chemical weapons are formally divided into three Categories. Into Category 1 fall Schedule 1 chemical agents and munitions filled with Schedule 1 agents. Category 2 covers munitions filled with other toxic chemicals and any other weaponised chemical agents—other than those in Schedule 1. Unfilled munitions and devices, and any other equipment specifically designed to aid in the deployment of chemical weapons, fall into Category 3. Destruction timelines are set by the Convention for the destruction of all three Categories of chemical weapons.
Chemical Weapon as defined by the CWC
A common conception of a chemical weapon comprises a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system such as a bomb or artillery shell. While technically correct, a definition based on this conception would only cover a small portion of the range of things the CWC prohibits as “chemical weapons”. There are several reasons for the broad CWC definition, which, as described in Fact Sheet 2, includes munitions, precursor chemicals and equipment connected with production and use of chemical weapons. For one thing, CW components—a toxic chemical and delivery system, for example— may be stored separately, each in and of itself less than a fully developed weapon. In the case of binary munitions, a nonlethal chemical may actually be stored within a munition, only to be mixed with a second chemical inserted into the munition shortly before firing, and the toxic product disseminated upon arrival at the target.
The complexity of the chemical weapon definition needed to meet the objectives of the Convention can be seen when considering “dual-use” items and technologies. Many chemicals used widely for peaceful and commercial purposes can also be used as, or applied to the creation of, chemical weapons. To address the potential threat posed by these chemicals, the CWC definition of a chemical weapon had to be as comprehensive as possible.
At the same time, however, care had to be taken not to define chemical weapons in a way that unnecessarily hindered legitimate uses of chemicals and the economic and technological development to which such uses may lead. While providing for the prevention of production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, the definition could not result in restrictions of any State Party’s right to acquire and retain conventional weapons and their associated delivery systems nor the right to produce and use chemicals for peaceful pur-poses. The definition eventually adopted allowed for a balanced approach under which the Convention’s objectives can be met while the rights of States Parties are retained.
To preclude contravention of the treaty’s intent by separation of chemical weapons into component parts, the Convention defines each component of a chemical weapon (CW) as a chemical weapon—whether assembled or not, stored together or separately. Anything specifically designed or intended for use in direct connection with the release of a chemical agent to cause death or harm is itself a chemical weapon. Specifically, the definition is divided into three parts:
The first part of the definition states that all toxic chemicals and their precursors, except when used for purposes permitted by the CWC in specified quantities, are chemical weapons. Toxic chemicals are defined as “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.” Precursors are chemicals involved in production stages for toxic chemicals. Except for very limited application for protection programmes, medical research or other permitted purposes, the production of some toxic chemicals with virtually no legitimate peaceful uses, such as sarin (GB), is banned. Determining whether genuinely dual-use chemicals are chemical weapons is more difficult. For example, chemicals such as chlorine, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide (AC)—all of which were used during World War I as chemical weapons—are also key ingredients in numerous commercial products. To make the determination, toxic dual-use chemicals are subjected tothe so-called general purpose criterion.
According to the general purpose criterion, a toxic or precursor chemical may be defined as a chemical weapon depending on its intended purpose. Put simply, a toxic or precursor chemical is defined as a chemical weapon unless it has been developed, produced, stockpiled or used for purposes not prohibited by the Convention. The definition thus includes any chemical intended for chemical weapons purposes, regardless of whether it is specifically listed in the Convention, its Annexes or the schedules of chemicals. The CWC does not, however, expressly state what “chemical weapons purposes” are. Instead, it lists those purposes that are not prohibited by the Convention. Chemicals intended for purposes other than these are considered chemical weapons.
A basic component of the general purpose criterion is the principle of consistency. A toxic chemical held by a State Party and in agreement with this principle will not only be produced, stockpiled or used for a legitimate purpose, but also will be of a type and quantity appropriate for that purpose.
The second part of the Convention’s definition of a chemical weapon includes any munitions or devices specifically designed to inflict harm or cause death through the release of toxic chemicals. Among these could be mortars, artillery shells, missiles, bombs, mines or spray tanks. In order to be defined as a chemical weapon, however, the items in question would have had to have been designed and built with the intent to release any of the toxic chemicals in the first part of the definition.
Thirdly and lastly, any equipment specifically designed for use “directly in connection” with employment of the munitions and devices of the second part of the definition are identified as chemical weapons. As with the second part, the principle of specificity applies. Thus, only that equipment specifically designed to be used with munitions and devices or toxic chemicals and their precursors falls under the chemical weapons definition.
One other definition of relevance is that of riot control agents (RCAs), the use of which as a method of warfare is prohibited by the CWC. A riot control agent is defined as being “any chemical not listed in a schedule which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination or exposure”. Regarding herbicides, the prohibition of their use as a method of warfare is recognised in the CWC Preamble. However, herbicides are not defined specifically in the Convention and there are no specific declaration or destruction requirements related to them. This does not preclude application of the general purpose criterion to chemicals traditionally considered as herbicides. In other words, if the intended purpose of a toxic chemical is prohibited by the CWC, the chemical shall be considered a chemical weapon.
Also deserving of mention are toxins – toxic chemicals produced by living organisms. Although also considered to be biological weapons, toxins are addressed by the CWC. The development, production and stockpiling of toxins for purposes of warfare are prohibited under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). Parties to that treaty that possess toxin weapons agree to destroy them. However, inasmuch as toxins are chemicals themselves and can have chemical weapons applications, they are automatically covered by the definitions listed above for chemical weapons and toxic chemicals. (Two toxins, ricin and saxitoxin, are in fact explicitly listed in Schedule 1.) This is due to the fact that a large number of toxins can be synthesised in laboratories without resorting to the organisms that produce them in nature. Moreover, a number of toxins are also synthetic dual-use chemicals, meaning that under the CWC, at least, amounts needed for legitimate activities are permitted.
Several unresolved issues remain regarding the definition of chemical weapons. One has to do with the status of old chemical weapons. Old chemical weapons fall into two categories:
1) chemical weapons produced before 1925 and 2) chemical weapons produced between 1925 and 1946 “that have deteriorated to such an extent that they can no longer be used as chemical weapons.” Old chemical weapons of the first category may be “destroyed or disposed of” as toxic waste in accordance with the relevant State Party’s national laws after the OPCW Secretariat has confirmed that they were indeed produced before 1925. Those weapons that fall into the second category of old chemical weapons are to be destroyed in accordance with the same conditions as other chemical weapons, though the time limits and the order of destruction can be changed, subject to approval by the Executive Council. Guidelines for determining whether weapons in this category have deteriorated enough to be unusable, however, have yet to be decided, though efforts to do so are ongoing. Categorisation of such weapons therefore remains problematic.
Agent Group, Persistency Rate of Action
|CW Agent Group||Persistency||Rate of Action|
|Sulfur mustard (H, HD)||Very high||Delayed|
|Nitrogen mustard (HN)||High||Delayed|
|Phosgene oxime (CX)||Low||Immediate|
|Hydrogen cyanide (AC)||Low||Rapid|
|Cyanogen chloride (CK)||Low||Rapid|
|Tabun (GA)||High||Very rapid|
|Sarin (GB)||Low||Very rapid|
|Soman (GD)||Moderate||Very rapid|
|Cyclosarin (GE, GF)||Moderate||Very rapid|
Ideally, emergency personnel will wear personal protective equipment, decontaminate the victims immediately, provide medical support to the victims and provide specific antidotes to counteract the harmful effects.
Personal protective equipment: First responders to a chemical attack are at serious risk themselves from the chemically contaminated environment (known as the hot zone). They can come in direct contact with the CWA or inhale the vapor. They are also at risk if they handle skin and clothing of victims if a liquid chemical agent was used. Vapors pose little added risk for anyone outside the hot zone.
Decontamination: Decontamination is the physical process of removing the remaining chemicals from people, equipment, and the environment. Residual hazardous chemicals on those who have been exposed directly are a source of ongoing exposure to others and pose a risk of secondary exposure to first responders and emergency care personnel. Immediate decontamination is a major treatment priority for those with CWA exposure.
Initial decontamination involves removing all contaminated clothes and jewelry from the affected person and then washing the body thoroughly with warm water and soap.
Hot water and vigorous scrubbing may actually worsen the effects by increasing chemical absorption into the skin.
Vapor exposure alone may not require decontamination. But if it is not known whether the exposure was to a vapor or liquid, or if exposed people have symptoms, they should undergo decontamination.
Ideally, decontamination will take place as close as possible to the site of exposure to minimize duration of exposure and prevent further spread. Hospitals receiving contaminated people may establish an area outside the Emergency Department in which to perform initial decontamination before people and equipment are allowed entry. Portable decontamination equipment with showers and run-off water collection systems are commercially available. All hospitals should have the capacity to safely decontaminate at least 1 person.
Supportive and specific therapy: Doctors will first make sure exposed victims are able to breathe. For many chemical warfare agents, doctors can only treat the symptoms they produce. But specific, well-established antidotes are available for nerve agent and cyanide exposures. Lab tests are not widely available in hospitals to rapidly confirm exposure to chemical agents.
How effective is a gas mask in a situation of chemical warfare?
For the full-face mask, a rubber hood goes over the head and creates a tight connection with the face. Sometimes people don’t put it on properly and gas can then go through those cracks.
Many chemical attacks also affect the skin. Even if your lungs are protected by a gas mask, your skin is not. There are nerve toxins that are meant to attach themselves to the skin. Simply washing the skin is not sufficient for protection.
Can a filter become clogged?
There is a tricky compromise between creating an efficient filter that catches 99.99 percent of the toxic particles while also leaving enough open pores to breathe through. The masks are only meant to be worn for a short amount of time before the filter ultimately clogs up.
You could create a huge filter, but carrying it around would be like having an elephant trunk on your face. You wouldn’t be able to move very easily.
How long can you wear a gas mask?
These are not engineered for long-term living, and you could probably wear a gas mask for about three to four hours before having to change the filter. You must be trained to get the mask on and off, change the filter, and expose yourself briefly to whatever chemical is in the air. I did this once, and don’t want to do it again. It is a terrible feeling when you can’t breathe because you are afraid.
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